Thursday, October 25, 2007

Firenze: Our Lady of Good Shopping

We were up early on Thursday, desperate for a bit of coffee and a pastry at Pasticceria Sieni, which became our breakfast spot of choice whilst in Firenze. The hotel, while perfectly situated for our purposes and staffed by warm, helpful people, had one of those great push-button coffee/tea/hot chocolate machines that you find in the breakfast rooms of hostels across Europe. Insufficient for my Omnivore’s early morning needs.

At Sieni-- which sits at the corner of Via dell'Arriento and Sant'Antonino behind the Mercato Centrale--as at so many other caffes across Italy, you try to quickly get your “Due brioche con cioccolata e due cappuccini!!” in before the locals, many of whom seem to work at the leather market in San Lorenzo, can push past you.

You then squeeze into a space at the bar and watch your cappuccino, along with about twenty other caffeine-related cousins, being prepared with finesse and studied ease by a gentleman in an immaculate suit. You may now also feel free to be self-conscious about the innumerable flakes of pastry that have snowed down upon your coat and the thin train of chocolate that traces a line from your lip to your chin.

Let the morning begin. Much refreshed, we walked over toward the train station, where I conned my Omnivore into going into another church with me, this time Santa Maria Novella. The façade of the church was under renovation of course. I remember on earlier trips, all I’ve seen was the sight of scaffolding, around the Duomo, around the Baptistery, around David, filling the entire Brancacci Chapel. I’ve probably seen more actual facades—and clean ones at that—on this trip than on any other.

Inside though is my target, the Masaccio Trinity, which I’ve been dying to see again. Everyone else seems to be strolling right past it, so it feels like we have it all to our own, and it’s lovelier than I remembered. Have they cleaned it? The pinks appear brighter, as do the coffers in the archway, and it no longer seems necessary to have the fifty-cent-for-two-minutes klieg light glaring onto it, just to make out the beautiful composition.

I’m happy as a clam now. I got my Masaccio fix for the day. My Omnivore doesn’t know it, though, that I’m angling to see the Brancacci Chapel as well, because in all the years I’ve been coming to Florence, it’s never been open.

We head back to the train station, or actually to the McDonald’s in front of the station, to meet Ms Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen, who have come in for a little sightseeing fun. We have loose plans to maybe hit the Pitti Palace, but nothing is set in stone, so I have a little sidetrack suggestion.

It’s been terribly dry in our room at the hotel, probably because we’ve had the heater pumped up as high as we can make it. My skin is feeling the effects though, and so I want to visit the famous Officina Profumo di Santa Maria Novella, which is housed in an old 13th century former convent and has made lotions and balms for patrons as far back as Catherine di Medici.

“Only you could turn shopping for hand lotion into an event,” laughs Mr. Thirteen.

We set out across the plaza in front of S. Maria Novella and turn down via della Scala. The Officina, at No. 16, doesn’t look too grand from the street, but inside, it’s elaborate, to put it mildly. Gilded parlors and rooms filled with case upon case of enticing rows of products—none of which are listed in our phrasebook. We wander from room to room –from the perfumery in the front to the herbalist’s cabinet in the back. There’s a little museum with books of recipes and some of the glass implements for extracting essences and mixing the elements.

The place screams Expensive Product, so I’m a little afraid to ask for hand lotion, but then the woman behind the desk at the herbalist’s cabinet give me a smile, and thus encouraged, I start in with the questions.

They’re quite nice, as it turns out, and I get a pot of almond hand lotion which, frankly costs about what my slightly extravagant L’Occitane shea butter does. Plus it works like a dream, my hands are drinking the stuff in.

We are off for new adventures though and head to the riverside, stopping every now and then at shops along the Arno. Ms. Five-and-a-Half is not only a sharp eye when it comes to shopping, she’s got a keen nose for a bargain as well. Not only can she spot a knock-off at fifty paces, she can tell you in about ten seconds if it’s a good quality knock-off and worth your euros or whether it’s last year’s style and not worth a second glance.

By the end of the day, I will have acquired a crisp, new white blouse, a beautiful leather purse, gotten a line on an excellent pair of riding boots and now know what kind of coat I should be looking for.

Consequently, we’ve got a new title for her: Our Lady of Good Shopping. I imagine her painted in a Gothic icon, with a Prada bag looped over one arm as an attribute. And inscribed on a ribbon coming from her lips would be the words she muttered to me at the Mercato Nuovo as we bargained for a leather purse, “Get a Better Price.”

Her consort then, Mr. Thirteen, must be known as the Patron Saint of Luggage, oft depicted with a Tumi rolling suitcase (black of course) and shown speaking the words he says to Our Lady as she examines a gilt and crystal sconce that would be perfect in their dining room, “There’s No Room for That.”

After making it across the Ponte Vecchio—where Our Lady explained about the Grand Tour necklaces and my Omnivore had to be torn away from the Ulysse Nardin watch displays--we arrived at the Pitti Palace and scanned the vast façade, hung with banner after banner explaining the various exhibitions inside the multi-museum complex.

“Now we don’t have to go here, you know,” said Ms. Five-and-a-Half, “We’re happy to go anywhere and just wander today.”

I look into my Omnivore’s eyes, which are saying, “Oh God. Museum shuffle,” and I understand that the Uffizi and Accademia have had long-term effects that have not yet worn off. The Pitti is a great collection, but between the Palatine Gallery and the Boboli Gardens, it’s an all day museum extravaganza. I have another idea.

“There’s a silk workshop on this side of the Arno,” I venture, “Would you like to visit it?”

Much more positive response. So we set off through the Oltrarno in search of the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, which has been in the same neighborhood, now at via L. Bartolini 4, since 1786. The workshop was founded as a clearinghouse and factory for all the looms and patterns used by the great Florentine families to decorate their palazzos, the Medici, the Corsinis, the Bartolozzis and the Puccis, whose family still runs the business.

As at the Officina, Number 4 doesn’t look too inviting from the street. In fact it looks like someone’s driveway. But I am not to be deterred—we’ve walked a fair distance to get here now—and I ring the bell. A very nice young woman comes out. She doesn’t speak English, and we can only hand-wave our Italian, but she understands that we’d like to see the place, and so she takes us in and leads us to the showroom. I’m a little disappointed to understand that we can’t see the looms, which are of course, original, and some of which are based on designs by Leonardo da Vinci. But once we step into the showroom, my disappointment vanishes.

The place is filled top to bottom with the most elegant gorgeous silks in rich lavish colors. Thee are heavy tapestry brocades that could decorate the Pitti Palace, and brilliant ermissino—shot silk taffetas that look like they should be draped over Maria Callas’ shoulders.

There’s a Vermeer light streaming in through the windows, and a wonderful old wood and heavy silk smell in all the rooms with the far-off sound of the clacking shuttles of looms in the workshop across the way. Clearly you can see from whence came all those incredible colors and textures that Renaissance artists so loved to show off in their oil paintings.

Our Lady of Good Shopping is thinking about completely reupholstering all the dining room chairs, while the Patron Saint of Luggage cautions, “There’s no room for that in our suitcase.”

We leave empty-handed, a little regretfully, taking a quick peek through a window at the looms, but with my mind plotting—how can I make a situation in which I simply must have six yards of Florentine silk taffeta?

We make our way back through the streets to eat at Trattoria Casalinga. I’ll mention it here only as a cautionary word. Originally, it made my list because it was described as a “place where you’ll find the locals.” This is indeed true, but that doesn’t make the food or the service particularly good.

It was probably the first place we’ve been to in all of Italy where absolutely no English was spoken, and to the extent that we were able to manage in our disjointed Italian, I was quite proud. But that’s about as far as the fun went.

I had a passable Bolognese and my Omnivore had ricotta and spinach raviolis, but while Mr. Thirteen’s ribollita arrived in a timely fashion, we never did see the pollo arrosto that he ordered. Later on as we hit the bathrooms before leaving (having cancelled on the pollo) my Omnivore saw sad and lonely plates lingering on the pass. Was one of them his chicken? So sad to contemplate.

From there, I suggested a hike up the hill to see the view from Piazzale Michelangelo and take a peek at San Miniato al Monte, which is one of my favorite little churches in Firenze. Fortunately, Ms. Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen were kind enough to indulge my tendency to drag people from one end of town to the other. Hey, I figured, we would have walked this far at least in the Pitti Palace…

Besides which, it looked finally like we would get some blue sky in Firenze and some sunlight, of which we had seen very little in our week and a half so far.

At the end, we came down the hill and settled in at Le Volpe e L’Uva for a few glasses of wine and a plate of cheese.

Volpe’s cheese plate is I think whatever interesting stuff they see at the Mercato, (fine by me!) in this case—clockwise from the top—a tome de Piedmont; “Bosina” from Caseficio alte Langhe, which we get in the States, but not this fresh; a nice Taleggio, and slices of pecorino sardo.

Wine, food and good friends – now there’s an Italian recipe.

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